Sunday, 12 July 2020

Living to 100 - my online talk TOMORROW!

Looking forward to talking online to the U3A in London at 1030 tomorrow about living to 100 - what's it like and which of us will survive to find out, based on my book 'Secrets of the Centenarians' (Reaktion).

Here's how the organisers have described the talk:

JULY 13: Living to 100. Who and what?  What is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out? John Withington discusses why there are 90 times as many centenarians as there were 100 years ago. Why women outnumber men by about 5 to 1.  What determines who will make it to 100 and who will fall by the wayside.            And can we go on expanding human lifespan or have we reached our limit?

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Brexitwatch: MPs - you're out of excuses. Time to resume your jobs

It is the duty of MPs to act in the interests of the UK. Many, perhaps most, regarded this duty as suspended after the Brexit referendum. Though the vast majority knew leaving the EU would damage the UK, they decided to obey the result of the referendum, even though it was explicitly advisory and non-binding, and even though it was set up and conducted in a thoroughly undemocratic way.

Readers of this blog will know I disagreed profoundly with this analysis. But if you agreed with it, the referendum result committed the government to one thing only: that we should ‘leave the EU’. That was the only thing we voted on. That duty has been discharged. We left on January 31, and MPs, therefore, no longer have any excuse for ignoring the national interest.

Any version of Brexit makes us poorer than we would have been if we had stayed in the EU, but the most damaging way to leave is ‘no deal’ – without any agreement. (No doubt worried that people were beginning to realise this, Johnson and Cummings have rebadged ‘no deal’ as an ‘Australia-style deal’. Australia has no trade deal with the EU.) 

A no-deal Brexit, according to the government’s own figures, will cost us around £30bn a year. That’s equivalent to about three-quarters of what we spend on schools. How disappointing then that our MPs have shown so little interest in the Conservative government’s dilatory non-negotiations with the EU, characterised by shouting slogans designed to appeal to the worst instincts of the most extreme Brexiters.

Come on MPs! This is not good enough. You can’t go on hiding behind the referendum result. It is your duty to your country to prevent a no-deal exit and to ensure the damage from Brexit is minimised as much as it can be.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Brexitwatch: Leave means disaster, say Leavers

The 'Leave Alliance' who 'make the case for leaving the EU' now realise Brexit's going to be a disaster. In a series of tweets, they say: 'These days I'm heavily sceptical of #Brexit and the mess it will surely be.'

They add: 'Any serious examination our #Brexit trade negotiations suggests the UK is playing silly b*ggers and was never sincere about a deal and we're just going through the motions to pretend we tried. The headbangers have won.'

I could hardly put it better myself! They point out that the government's plan to join the CPTPP Trans-Pacific partnership on the other side of the world instead of the EU 20 miles across the channel is a waste of time. (Surely even Dominic 'where's Dover?' Raab, our alleged Foreign Secretary, must have noticed the UK isn't very near the Pacific.)

As for a US trade deal, says the Leave Alliance, it'll be much worse than staying in the EU Single Market, and probably won't happen anyway.

Our customs systems 'aren't ready' for the end of transition, and no-deal will cause 'unsustainable customs and red tape overheads'. They conclude that it looks as though the Tories 'haven't the first idea what they're doing.'

You'll be relieved to know that sanity hasn't completely dawned in Brexitland. Even though we Remainers have been warning for the last four and a half years that Brexit is barmy, it is still apparently all our fault. The question now though is whether the Brexiters who have belatedly realised that Johnson is leading us to disaster have the guts to do anything about it.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Cummingsgate: will it be Johnson's Black Wednesday?

A recently elected Conservative party leader won a surprise victory against considerable odds in a general election, and, as a result, appeared to be in a strong position with considerable authority. But just a few months later came a crisis.

The prime minister and his government did not handle it well. They made promises they were unable to keep, and though they stayed in office for the best part of five more years, the prime minister's credibility never recovered, and his government was torn apart by internecine warfare over Europe. When the next general election came along, the Tories were comprehensively defeated.

That is the story of John Major, prime minister from 1992-7, but the first three and a half sentences at least could also have been written about Boris Johnson. The crisis that found Major wanting, was 'Black Wednesday'. The government promised to keep the UK in Europe's Exchange Rate Mechanism at all costs. But even raising interest rates 4 per cent in a day and spending billions of pounds was not enough to fight off the currency dealers who believed Major was trying to keep the pound at a higher level than the economy justified, and the UK crashed out.

Johnson's crisis has been an odder one: his insistence on hanging on to an unelected adviser who had flouted coronavirus lockdown rules. It is coalescing, of course, with a general feeling that the crisis has been handled badly: locking down too late, abandoning testing, failing to supply protective equipment to frontline workers, failing to protect care homes, etc, but the decision to protect Dominic Cummings generated a huge wave of anger, even among Conservatives.

Will the story end the same? Sam Goldwyn said: 'beware of making predictions especially about the future,' and a lot can happen in what could be four years or more before the next election. Johnson also has a much bigger parliamentary majority than Major, but it is possible that when the history of his government is written, the day he decided to defend Cummings instead of firing him may be seen as his 'Black Wednesday'.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Coronavirus watch: lessons from past plagues, my interview with Radio Cornwall

What can the plagues of the past tell us about coronavirus? The dreadful Black Death, that killed around 40% of England's population; bubonic plague that returned not just in a second wave, but time and time again over three centuries; the mysterious sweating sickness that nearly killed Anne Boleyn before she married Henry VIII; cholera - a scourge in the 19th century.

You can find my interview with Debbie McCrory of BBC Radio Cornwall here -

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Cummingsgate: a reply from the commissioner

On May 28, I posted the email I had sent to Durham's Police and Crime Commissioner enquiring about Dominic Cummings' lockdown busting visit to his county. I have now had a reply which I attach below. It does not answer any of the questions I asked, but this is not unusual in modern Britain. (It also spells my name wrong.)

This may not be the end of the matter, as a group of lawyers backed by health workers and families of coronavirus victims is now demanding a proper police investigation.

Anyway here's the commissioner's reply:

Dear Mr Whithington,

Thank you for your correspondence regarding the visit by Mr Cummings to the County of Durham, I can assure you that your contact is valued.

I think it is important to make it clear that in my role as Acting Police Crime and Victims’ Commissioner, I am politically restricted and that I have no affiliations professionally to any political party. I take my role of ensuring an efficient and effective Police Service seriously and it is this that steers me in my day to day responsibilities.

Trust and confidence of the public in the police service is vitally important. It is even more so at this time of national emergency. What is needed is compliance with the rules to prevent spread and infection. To enforce after a breach rather defeats the object, as the risk will already have taken place. This informed the approach adopted by, and agreed with the Force, in the policing style in Durham.
As a result we are amongst the lowest for penalty notices. In my view the Force area has seen excellent compliance and where this has not been the case, appropriate and proportionate policing has been the response. This has helped maintain public confidence despite the draconian powers available. It is because of the need for this confidence that I took the decision to ask the Chief Constable to establish the facts amongst the sea of opinion, story and reporting. It is not a step I took lightly.

Now that the Force has concluded their enquiries, I am hopeful that our communities will see that the Force has dealt with the matter with fairness, proportionality and care.
I do hope that this provides you with some reassurance and an explanation of the way this matter was dealt with.

Kind Regards
Steve White
Acting Police Crime and Victims’ Commissioner

Friday, 29 May 2020

Cummingsgate: Why isn't Cummings going?

It is clear now that come hell, high water or Preston Guild, as they used to say when I was a lad, Boris Johnson is not going to sack lockdown buster Dominic Cummings, so unless Conservative MPs suddenly find the guts to remove Johnson, the 'adviser' is not going anywhere. But with 100 Tory MPs voicing their dissatisfaction publicly, and, we're told, many more privately, Johnson has had to spend political capital like it was going out of style to hang on to Cummings. So why?

1. Loyalty? This is the easiest explanation to dismiss. Johnson has betrayed wives, children, David Cameron, Theresa May, the ERG, the DUP, the new Tory voters in Red Wall seats, etc., etc. The only person to whom Johnson has ever exhibited loyalty is himself.

2. Cummings is so brilliant, he's indispensable? Not on the evidence of the last few weeks, surely? The government's response to coronavirus has been an error-strewn disaster. Plainly Johnson isn't much enamoured of work, and needs someone to do it on his behalf, but it's hard to believe Cummings is the only man known to the government capable of this.

3. Brexit? Do all roads lead here? Brexit has always been a house of cards. Even four years after the referendum (and decades after some to them started plotting), the Brexiters are still incapable of coming up with any credible alternative to EU membership. Brexit has always been a house of cards, and the Cummings card is right at the base. Does Johnson fear that removing it will bring the whole rotten edifice crashing down. (This might also explain why Cummings hasn't apologised. Maybe he and Johnson judged that any admission of fallibility, however small, could threaten Brexit.)

4. Does Cummings know too much? The question so courageously put to a Conservative MP by BBC interviewer Simon McCoy. Certainly if Johnson got on the wrong side of his 'adviser', there would be great danger that beans would be spilt - on Brexit, political funding, Russia (what was Cummings doing there for three years exactly?) or other things we as yet know nothing of. And it may not be only Johnson he knows too much about. What about all those other Tories who tumbled over each other in their haste to defend Cummings? 

My own bet is answer is 3 or 4, or possibly both. 

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Cummingsgate: a letter to the Durham Police and Crime Commissioner

As ever with the Dominic Cummings affair, every new statement from the authorities raises more questions than it answers. Durham Police now say Mr Cummings 'may' have committed a 'minor' breach of the lockdown with his notorious 'eye-test' journey to Barnard Castle.

This has prompted me to email Steve White, Durham's (elected) Acting Police and Crime Commissioner. ( 

Dear Commissioner,
We all have an interest in trying to halt the spread of coronavirus, and so I have followed the matter of Dominic Cummings' journey to Durham closely. It prompts a number of questions.
1. Just before Mr Cummings' press conference, Durham Police changed their account of the contact they had had with him when he first appeared in Durham, revising it to say that when police officers saw him, they had discussed only matters of security. So, a family appears in Durham, where there is very little coronavirus, from another part of the country where there is a lot. Some of the family are ill (it is hard to know how many because the accounts from Mr Cummings and his wife are inconsistent). And the police officers don't ask any questions about what they're doing there? Or investigate whether they are in breach of lockdown rules? Is this properly discharging their duty to the people of Durham?
2. Over the last few days, while everyone knew there was a live police investigation into Mr Cummings, numerous cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs made prejudicial comments, asserting that Mr Cummings was innocent. By accident or design, this plainly puts pressure on Durham Police. Is prejudicial comment of this kind consistent with ministerial and/or MPs' codes of conduct?
3. Durham Police's statement refers to a 'minor' breach of the lockdown rules. There is surely no such thing, it is a breach or it isn't. Are you concerned that the police have been drawn into 'spinning' material for political reasons rather than objectively stating what they see as the truth?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Cummingsgate: seeing the point of the eye test

'I had to break the lock-down to drive my wife to a local beauty spot on her birthday in order to test my eyes' has rightly been seized on as the funniest part of Dominic Cummings' full-of-holes attempt at justifying his lockdown busting, and it has inspired many good jokes, but perhaps we're missing the point of it.

And of Cummings' attempts to fake an article he claimed to have written last year predicting coronavirus. It was apparently a fabrication so crude that any data scientist could detect it in their sleep. 

Remember when Russian agents tried to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018? They later appeared on Russian television delivering excuses so implausible that, in any other context, they would have been comic, claiming they came to England to see the 'wonderful town' of Salisbury with its 'famous cathedral.'

But we weren't meant to believe them. The excuses were intended to be risible to illustrate the Russians' contempt for us. The message was: 'we're lying. You know we're lying. We know you know we're lying, but we don't care. Because we're more powerful than you, and there's nothing you can do about it, so we're not even going to bother making up a credible story.'

The message from Cummings' implausible account is the same: 'I know you don't believe this, but you're not even worth lying to properly. I'm the elite, and you're the plebs. You do as I tell you. I do as I like.'

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Cummingsgate: Cummings' tactics

We used to get days like yesterday and Sunday every 3 or 4 years. Since Brexit and coronavirus, we seem to get them every three or four days.

It was interesting to watch Cummings' tactics. He turned up for the press conference 30 minutes late. Was this just keeping the opposing team sweating in the sun, while you relax in the cool of the changing room? No. It now seems it was to clear time to arm-twist Durham Police into changing their story. 15-love to Cummings.

Then he went for a long, detailed, and, to me anyway, in parts quite boring story. Listening is hard work, and taking in a whole lot of facts unseen is tough. So the journos, particularly the first couple to serve, didn't do very well at the q and a. Game to Cummings.

But the downside of Cummings' tactics is that although it helps you through the immediate hazards of the q and a, it provides an awful lot of material to be poured over and examined in the hours and days to come. 

The 'I had to break the lock-down to drive my wife to a local beauty spot on her birthday in order to test my eyes' was the stand-out weak line, and was being ridiculed in seconds. 'If this is the best he can do when he's had six weeks to think about it, how can he be an A-list spin doctor?' must have passed through quite a few minds. 

But now a number of other details are being examined, e.g. if he was doing nothing wrong being in Durham, why did he weave such an elaborate web of deception to pretend he was in London. Cummings says he was being 'targeted' and feared for his safety. Did he report such fears to the police? And if he did, did they say: 'Sorry. Can't help you, old boy.'?

Cummings also claimed he wrote a prophetic article about coronavirus in 2019, but this appears not to be true, though an attempt has been made to doctor records to make it look as though he had. This is particularly interesting, because if it is a lie, it is a completely gratuitous one. It is in no way necessary, or germane to Cummings' case. Not now so clear that Cummings is going to win the match.

There may be more as the fine tooth comb goes through his words.

My overall assessment is that the view of most people watching is that Cummings will continue to be seen as a rich toff with a country house who believed he personally was above the rules he was helping to impose on everyone else. He may have spotted some loophole in the very small print that said: 'If you fear you may at some point become ill, and you have a child, you can drive anywhere you like,' but none of the rest of us understood the rules that way, and it was certainly not what the government that Mr Cummings runs, sorry 'advises', was telling us.

Those continuing to back Mr Cummings are doing it at their political peril.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: the plagues of Southampton

The Black Death was the deadliest epidemic in British history. Did it enter the country through Southampton? Coronavirus has brought a resurgence of interest in my book, A Disastrous History of Britain, and here's the piece I've written on 'the plagues of Southampton' for the Southampton Daily Echo.

It tells the story of the plagues that have afflicted Southampton, Winchester and the region from the Black Death, through bubonic plague and cholera to Spanish flu.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: Cummings - the apology he never made

'I recognise that I made an error of judgement for which I apologise. As my wife and I were both feeling ill, we were worried about who would look after our small child. This, I am afraid, clouded my judgement, and we made the mistake of travelling to my parents' home. I realise now that this was wrong, and I would like to apologise to all the people who have been observing the lock-down, and to stress how important it is that we all continue to respect the rules drawn up to keep us all safe.'

Why didn't Dominic Cummings say something like that? OK it's not perfect, and it begs lots of questions: were you and your wife actually feeling ill? And if you were, why did you put yourselves, your child and other road users at risk by driving 260 miles? If you didn't realise what you were doing was wrong, why was so much effort put into concealing it? When did you realise? And why did you not apologise for your behaviour until it was revealed in the press? etc, etc

But IF you want to preserve public support for the lock-down, it's surely better than arrogantly and aggressively pretending you did nothing wrong? The leaflet Boris Johnson sent me was absolutely specific: if you have coronavirus symptoms, you 'must stay at home until the symptoms have ended, and in all cases for at least seven days.' 

We are told, through the nods and winks that have replaced proper government announcements, that Dominic Cummings was not a fan of lock-down, preferring a policy of 'herd immunity' (though, of course, there is no evidence that being exposed to coronavirus gives you immunity), protecting the economy at all costs, and 'if some pensioners die, that's too bad'. So are Johnson and Cummings actually relaxed about the lock-down collapsing? Indeed, would they welcome it, so they can help the economy even if that means more people dying? Or is that just Cummings' view, with Johnson, for whatever reason, afraid to resist?

As usual, with this 'government' of liars, we just don't know.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: the plagues of Wiltshire

Interviewed by BBC Radio Wiltshire's James Thomas on the plagues of Wiltshire from the Black Death through smallpox, plague and cholera to coronavirus.

Drawing on my book, A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press), we discuss what we can learn today from these earlier epidemics and I tell the story of how plague, briefly, made Salisbury the capital of England.

The interview is in two parts. Here's the link - 
The first clip is at 1hr 13mins and the 2nd at 1hr 50 mins.
Or you can find them on youtube: part 1 

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: the plagues of Britain - Bristol

As I posted before, covid-19 seems to have led to a resurgence of interest in my 'Disastrous History' books, especially 'The Disastrous History of Britain.' (The History Press).

Here's my story in the Bristol Post about the plagues that have afflicted the Bristol area over the centuries, from the Black Death to Spanish flu, and about what lessons we can learn from them. 

The Black Death was the deadliest epidemic in British history, and Bristol is a prime suspect as the place where it first entered the country -

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: was this Britain's first major epidemic?

Over the centuries after Stonehenge was built, the descendants of the people who created it largely disappeared from Britain. They were farmers of Mediterranean appearance with dark hair and olive skin. 

The great stone circle was finished about 2500 BC, but examination of 150 ancient skeletons from all over the country suggests that over the next 500 years, our Mediterranean-type ancestors had dwindled to about 10 per cent of the population.

They were replaced by the 'Beaker people' who seem to have originated in Central Europe. In the absence of any evidence of a major conflict, some archaeologists suggest that they brought with them a disease or diseases to which the native people had no resistance. Some have even suggested it might have been bubonic plague, which returned with such devastating effect during the 300 years or so from 1348.  (See my posts of  3 and 25 April.)

If the theory is right, it would mirror what happened to the Aztecs, the Incas and the Maya, who were conquered not so much by Spanish conquistadors as by the smallpox and other diseases they brought with them.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Coronavirus watch: second waves - a lesson from history

The Black Death, probably bubonic plague, was the deadliest epidemic in British history, carrying off up to 40 per cent of the population. What a relief it must have been when it finally petered out in the early 1350s.

But in 1361, the disease was back! In what became known as the ‘children’s plague.’ While the Black Death killed more older people, this epidemic was especially hard on those born since the earlier plague had departed. It was less devastating than the Black Death, but it still carried off perhaps one person in five.

There were another four serious plague outbreaks before the end of the century, and the disease struck regularly over the next 300 years so that overall it reduced Britain’s population by maybe half.

All sorts of cures and preventions were tried - bleeding, carrying nosegays of flowers or herbs, sealing windows with waxed cloth, the constant burning of aromatic woods or powders. But with the disease being passed on by fleas of the black rat, none of them worked. The best plan was probably to run for it, away from the towns and cities, as many of the wealthy did, but even that wasn’t foolproof, though, as generally happens, the rich survived better than the poor.

For more, see my book A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press)

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Coronavirus watch: Lockdown - 1665-style

During the Great Plague of 1665, which killed perhaps one person in five in London, lockdowns were a bit more brutal. People found to be infected were locked up in their houses with their families.

In its early stages, the government also closed ale houses and brought in some restrictions on street-vendors. But the death toll grew alarmingly, even though there were suspicions that many plague deaths were being attributed to other causes.

The more prosperous folk were relieved that the disease seemed to be hitting only the poorest districts, and in May, London theatres were still packed. But as more and more people died, in June, warders were put around the worst-hit area to try to stop the inhabitants getting out. Still the disease spread, and the King and court upped sticks.

By the end of June, the theatres were closed, and the streets were jammed with coaches as most of the aristocracy fled, though the Lord Mayor stayed, conducting business from inside a glass case.

In July, the disease really took hold, with more than 5,500 deaths, and the diarist Samuel Pepys (pictured) set his affairs in order, mindful that ‘a man cannot depend on living two days’. August and September were the worst months. London was a ghost town, with only ‘poor wretches’ on the street, and Pepys noting that he could walk the length of usually-bustling Lombard Street, and see only 20 people.

By September, most of the doctors had gone, the Royal College of Physicians was deserted, and there was not a lot of sympathy when it had its valuable treasures stolen. The authorities were supposed to provide food for those shut up in their houses, but by now the money had run out, victims were beginning to resist, and the practice had to be abandoned.

The usual sounds of one of the world’s great cities had been replaced by the endless tolling of bells and the rumbling of the carts collecting corpses to the cry of ‘bring out your dead!’ Grass grew in the streets, and Pepys lamented ‘how empty and melancholy’ they were, while a puritan preacher said that every day he heard of the death of at least one person he knew.

For more, see London’s Disasters (The History Press).

Friday, 24 April 2020

Brexitwatch: Boris Johnson - intimations of mortality

‘When a man is about to be hanged,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ Assuming that, during his time in the intensive care ward, Boris Johnson felt acutely reminded of his own mortality, what effect might that have?

Because you can’t believe a word he says, anything you write about Johnson is highly speculative, but I spoke to someone who claimed to know him, who told me something I found reassuring. He said the prime minister cares a lot about what the history books will say about him.

If he had died during his brush with coronavirus, they wouldn’t have made great reading: ‘He knew leaving the EU would be highly damaging for the UK, but he pressed on with it because he thought it would advance his own career. He undermined prime minister Theresa May on the pretext that her Withdrawal Agreement was not good enough, then once he had replaced her, negotiated one that was worse. He won an election under a slogan he knew was mendacious, and then when he was confronted with the worst crisis the UK had faced in decades, he proved completely unequal to the task.' Though the charge sheet would obviously be longer than this.

If Johnson is serious about being treated more kindly by history, he must realise there are a number of policies he is going to have to reverse. Most obviously, limiting the damage from Brexit by agreeing a close relationship with the EU to secure the frictionless trade on which the UK’s future depends.

So far the signs aren’t good. He has bizarrely ruled out any extension of the transition period which ends on December 31 at which point, the UK is in danger of crashing out of Europe with a huge hit to jobs, public services, businesses etc.

But the lesson for Boris Johnson of his intimation of mortality is surely this. If there is something you need to do, do it today. There may be no tomorrow.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Coronavirus: renewed interest in the historical perspective

Is it the coronavirus epidemic that has stirred up renewed interest in my book A Disastrous History of the World (Little, Brown), which appeared in the US as Disaster! (Skyhorse)?

A Mexican blog has been drawing on the sections on the early plagues of Athens, Rome and Byzantium, quoting the Spanish language edition – Historia mundial de los desastres (Turner).

This Romanian blogger concentrates on the chapters on plagues and diseases – discussing, among others, smallpox, cholera, typhus, malaria, sleeping sickness and flu.

While this Romanian article covers what I wrote about the great European famine that occurred during the ‘Little Ice Age’ of the early 14th century, and killed, according to some, up to a quarter of the population.

 The Romanian language edition of the book is Cele mai mari dezastre din istoria omenirii (Polirom).

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

A prayer for Boris Johnson

I wish Boris Johnson a speedy recovery.

I also wish him wisdom. The wisdom to see that the future of the United Kingdom and its people are more important than his career.

And I wish him the courage to act on that wisdom.

Friday, 3 April 2020

The plagues of Britain: the Black Death

The Black Death has the dubious distinction of being in all likelihood the worst disaster in British history. Probably a lethal cocktail of bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plague (though not all historians agree), it carried off perhaps a third of the population after coming to England from the East in 1348.

Spread by fleas carried on the black rat, and perhaps originating in Central Asia, it was first noticed in the West Country, and may have arrived at Melcombe Regis, now effectively part of Weymouth. Across the country, so many priests died that there were not enough to hear people’s final confessions, so the church said people about to die could unburden themselves to a lay person, and in extremis, ‘even to a woman’.

One of the consequences of the appalling mortality was a dramatic decline in respect for authority – particularly that of the church. The clergy often banged on about how the plague was God’s punishment for people’s bad behaviour, but the line did not go down very well, and at Yeovil, for example, the local bishop found himself besieged in his church by an angry crowd armed with bows and arrows.

London was by far the biggest city in the country, and there, as in other places, the numbers of dead overwhelmed the authorities, and many bodies were just shovelled into mass graves. Food supplies started to dry up as carters refused to come to the city, and Londoners had to go out into the countryside to search for supplies. This lack of social distancing helped spread the pestilence.

For more, see my book A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press).

Friday, 27 March 2020

Coronavirus's ancestors: the plagues of Ancient Britain

Many epidemics must have afflicted Ancient Britain without leaving any mark on history. Perhaps the first that any historians speak of with any confidence came in AD 166 when Roman Britain, particularly London, may have been attacked by the Plague of Galen (named after the physician who described it), brought back by soldiers who had been fighting in the East.

It could have been smallpox or measles. No one is sure, but some historians believe it played a part in a major decline in London’s population, exacerbated by a great fire or a series of fires.

Nearly six centuries later, the ‘father of English history’, the Venerable Bede (pictured above), a monk in Jarrow, recorded a number of epidemics. Were they bubonic plague or some other disease? Again no one really knows.

Bede wrote of a sudden ‘severe plague’ falling on the Britons in 426-7. It ‘destroyed such numbers of them, that the living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead.’ In 664, he says that ‘a sudden pestilence…..depopulated the southern coasts of Britain’ and then spread right up to Northumbria where it ‘ravaged the country far and near, and destroyed a great multitude of men.’

This was such a shock, according to Bede, that it helped to revive heathenism, as many ‘forsook the mysteries of the Christian faith and turned apostate’. The next year, pestilence ravaged Essex, and in 681, a ‘grievous mortality ran through many provinces of Britain’.

For more, see my book, A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press).

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Coronavirus: a lesson from history

‘The plague,’ wrote Samuel Pepys, ‘made us as cruel as dogs one to another.’ The famous diarist lived through the Great Plague of 1665 which killed perhaps 100,000 in London, a fifth of the population. It also raged outside the capital. More than a sixth of the inhabitants of Cambridge are said to have died, a quarter in Norwich, between a quarter and a third in Dover, a third in Newark and some claimed it was one person in two in Southampton.

I have just come back to the UK from a short time abroad, and Pepys’ words leapt into my mind as I traipsed around a series of supermarkets looking at empty shelves. No pasta, no rice, no canned foods, no chicken, precious little fruit and veg. Even items like lentils, buckwheat and quinoa, which do not normally appear to be in great demand, had been cleaned out.

Back in 1665, the elite often got out of the cities. In Southampton, the deputy mayor and 16 other local officials were fined for deserting their posts. Infected people and their families were locked up in their houses. The authorities were supposed to provide food for them, but the money ran out, and as those being incarcerated began resisting, sometimes violently, the practice had to be abandoned.

Carts collected corpses with cries of ‘bring out your dead’ and as coffins and even shrouds got scarce, bodies were flung naked into plague pits. If you want to know more about the Great Plague, see my books London’s Disasters and A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press).

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Friday, 6 March 2020

Brexit and coronavirus

On the radio the other day, Edward Argar, a health minister in Boris Johnson’s government, said its approach to dealing with the coronavirus would be ‘evidence-based’. As distinct from its approach to Brexit which will be based on ignoring all evidence and ploughing on blindly to disaster.

Indeed, ignoring evidence is not nearly enough, and needs to be supplemented by suppressing evidence wherever possible by, for example, making sure the government does no proper assessment of what Brexit is going to cost you, and keeping the Russia Report under lock and key.

Evidence-based approach to coronavirus or not, Johnson has pulled the UK out of the EU’s pandemic warning system because it would ‘cross Brexit red lines’. Good job Brexiters are all immune from the virus, eh?

Pip! Pip!

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Brexitwatch: Margaret Thatcher - Boris Johnson's part in her downfall

When Brexiters and Johnsonites talk about Margaret Thatcher, they tend to speak in tones of hushed reverence, but thanks to some good work by the Guardian on newly released papers, we now know that our current prime minister and the person most to blame for Brexit played a crucial role in bringing her down.

It is not mentioned much these days, but for most of her career, Thatcher was unambiguously pro-European – campaigning enthusiastically for Remain in the 1975 referendum and then perhaps doing more than anyone else to create the Single Market.

But by 1990, she and her party were losing popularity and divisions over Europe among her colleagues were beginning to surface, so Thatcher decided to throw the anti-EU contingent a bit of red meat (sound familiar?)  

The supplier was the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent on what was then called the EC (European Community), one Boris Johnson, who was known for writing highly entertaining anti-Brussels stories, which often had the drawback of being made up.

Johnson had attacked the European Commission president, Jacques Delors (a favourite bĂȘte noire of the right-wing press - 'Up Yours, Delors!' etc) claiming that he was endangering our sovereignty. The Foreign Office drew the article to Thatcher’s attention with a warning that it wasn’t true.

But Thatcher used it as the basis of her famous: ‘No! No! No!’ speech, which alarmed her more sensible MPs and ministers. (Note for younger readers: in those days some leading figures in the Conservative Party actually cared about what was in the interests of the UK.) And within a month, Britain’s first woman prime minister was gone.